Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

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Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

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Resources

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Rainbows and mythology

Part one

Rainbows feature in a variety of types of myth, and starting with end of the world myths we find rainbows popping up in a number of seemingly disconnected cultures, including northern India, parts of Canada and Argentina.

In Judeo-Christian lore, the rainbow is associated the flood.  After the flood, God set his bow in the clouds as a “token of covenant”.  In medieval Christianity, they were depicted in art showing the apocalypse as well as as a bow (a weapon, not gift wrapping). This rainbow as a bow concept was the case elsewhere in the world, with the Sanskrit word for rainbow literally meaning ‘the bow of Indra’ (one of the Hindu gods).

“The English language cannot describe a rainbow without reference to [the bow]: the ‘bow-ness’ of the bow intractably, implausibly, indestructibly remains.”
– Daniel MacCannell

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Elsewhere in the world, the rainbow has been seen as part of a deity, such as a mythical belt, a necklace and so on.  Rainbows as cosmic architectures, such as those in the Norse myths, are also well known but there is also the rainbow pathway that the goddess Iris uses to move between the mortal and the heavenly worlds.

“Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world.”
Myths and Myth-Makers, John Fiske (1873 hence language used)

Another way we can see rainbows in myth is as rainbow beings such as the snake-monster from the Mbuti people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – a man killer that creates catastrophes and generally inspires terror.  Another terrifying rainbow creature is the serpent Magalim from New Guinea who causes madness and malaria when not busy swallowing people.  Dangerous rainbow serpents can also be found in South America, including the Panare from Venezuela who use the same word to mean both rainbow and were-anaconda…

There is also the rainbow snake found in Aboriginal Australian mythology and that brings us onto the unexpected subject of dragons

Some historians suggest a link between rainbows and dragons and this is investigated in depth by Robert Blust.  He says that the dragon is the end point of a developing concept which began with rainbows and moved through the rainbow serpent to become the dragons we are more familiar with today, especially those from china.  But this link may seem counter intuitive when seen through a Western lens:

“Within the Judeo-Christian tradition the rainbow is the bow of the covenant, a sign of divine promise and hope; by contrast the dragon is a sinister relic of the pre-Christian past.”
– Robert Blust

The rainbow serpent is a giant snake whose body arches like a rainbow across the sky.  They are associated with the gift of blood, controlling the circulation of blood as well as menstrual cycles.

“The rainbow is most commonly represented in one of four ways:

As a celestial bow

As a bridge between heaven and earth

As a belt, scarf or other article of apparel of a deity

As a giant snake.

By far the most common view is that the rainbow is a giant snake which either drinks water from the Earth and sprays it over the sky (this causing it to rain), or that drinks from the sky (causing it to stop).”
– Blust

It is easy to lean into this idea given that rainbows are often associated with the beginning or end of a rain shower.  As our ancestors sought to explain and understand the world around them, natural phenomena were often personified and given the shape of a rainbow, a serpent is an obvious choice.  Understanding the rainbow as a giant snake, it’s not too far of a leap to see why it might have developed into a dragon, especially the more serpentine Chinese dragons.

Resources

Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

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Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

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As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

Resources

December’s reading

“Clouds running across the face of a waning moon.  Distant flashes of lightening.  I know what it is, a “warm front”, etc. And who cares what the weather may be? It is money that cares about weather and pays to predict it, perhaps some day to control it. And who wants a world in which weather is controlled by money?”
– Thomas Merton

December’s reading has been a little restricted.  I found it impossible to concentrate whilst I was in hospital and despite now being out, I am still very very limited in what I can eat so I’m rather tired and not sleeping well.

However, I have read (or at least started reading) The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore and The Cloudspotters Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, both excellent starts for weather related reading.

Other useful resources have included the Future Learn weather course, the Met Office, Folklore Thursday and the Open Learn Surviving the Winter course.  There are also a lot of links within individual posts so if a particular topic is of interest I’d suggest you try there.  From a literature point of view, I drew a lot on my GCSE and A Level English Literature as well as my wide range of reading material.  I’m intrigued as to whether I will notice weather more when reading fiction in the future…

A website I didn’t have time to look at properly but which I think would be useful and shine a different light on weather is Living In The Weather World:

[Living in the weather world] is for researchers, teachers, students, and school children who want to build a sense of connectedness with the natural world, both the slowly changing world of plants, animals and the physical environment, and the faster changing world of the weather, as they come together into one weather-world.

Another book I haven’t read is Where The Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt.

TV wise, Inside the Met Office and Volitile Earth (both on 4OD) were interesting, there are a large number of weather related disaster films (and don’t forget the Wizard of Oz) and these short youtube videos are also worth a watch:

There were lots of other weather related topics I wanted to look at this month but they shall wait for another time.  One of these was a post which I hoped would echo What can we learn from the fog? but with a different type of weather, probably rain.  I might return to this on a wet and windy day when I have a bit more energy.  But for now, as we enter January, we turn from rain and wind to the birds which fly through them.

Just a little proud boast; I’ve written over 82,000 words in my nature and writing project so far despite a host of challenges and am feeling pretty satisfied.  Whilst word count is irrelevant, especially for this, it does give me a sense of achievement.

Get your head in the clouds

I am reading the amazing and comprehensive The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  I had hoped to be able to take you on a tour of the ten main types of clouds but the hospital stay means I’m a bit behind in my reading and my learning so I’ll be focusing on the lower clouds.  That is the cumulus, cumulonimbus, status and stratocumulus.  If you’re interested in clouds and want to know about the rest of them then do buy his book and check out the Cloud Appreciation Society website.  My writings here are informed by other sources including the Future Learn Learn About Weather course which was run alongside the met office.

“Nothing in nature rivals [clouds] variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”
– Pretor-Pinney

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Flying through the clouds

Clouds and the sky are scattered through our language.  We talk of there being not a cloud in the sky, of having a grey cloud above us, of silver linings and blue sky thinking.  We create image after image of gods and goddesses sitting on the clouds.  But how often do most of us actually look up and see them?  We should.  Pretor-Pinney describes clouds as “nature’s poetry”, as “expressions of the atmosphere’s moods” and from a practical point, learning about clouds helps you know what the weather might do next.

One of the wonderful things about clouds is their impermanence.  They are almost always changing, transforming, becoming what they want or racing over the sky towards their next adventure.

Cumulus

A little latin comes in handy here, cumulus is the word for heap and this is a good description of a cumulus cloud.  These are like the clouds that children draw, like heaps of cotton wool scattered across the sky.

Cumulus clouds, in Hinduism and Buddhism, are the spiritual cousins of elephants. And elephants are said to have the power to bring rain so are, or were, worshipped and prayed to in order to bring the monsoon rains.

Interesting fact: a medium sized cumulus cloud ways about the same as 80 elephants.

It’s easy to forget that clouds are made up of water droplets, until it rains that is.  But we don’t need to worry here, cumulus clouds are generally associated with good weather.  It’s the cumulonimbus you need to be aware of…

Cumulonimbus

Extreme.  Destructive.  Stormy.  Violent.  That is the cumulonimbus.

It is these clouds which bring rain, hail, snow, lightening, gales, tornadoes and devastation.  They can injure and they can kill.

They can be taller than Mount Everest and can contain energy equivalent to ten Hiroshima sized bombs.

This is undoubtably the Kind of the Clouds.

This is the playground bully who didn’t need or want any friends.

Aside from the cues from the weather, you can tell a cumulonimbus by it’s size and the classic formation has a top which spreads out and looks like a blacksmith’s anvil.  Because this cloud needed more weaponry…

Interesting fact: This is the cloud that you’d be on if you were on cloud nine.  When The International Cloud Atlas was published in 1896 it was ninth on the list.  And whilst it doesn’t sound like a cloud you’d want to be anywhere near, the saying has probably come about because it is the tallest of clouds.

If you want to know what it’s like to be in one of these nasty beasts, read about William Rankin who had to eject from his plane above one of them.

Stratus

Stratus clouds seem a bit like the relation that no one really likes… They are the flat, slow moving clouds which blanket the sky and don’t give you much to look up for.  They epitomise the overcast, dreary day.  To give you a feel for them, when they form at ground level they are called fog or mist.

Stratocumulus

These are low patchy clouds with well defined bases, looking a bit like candyfloss.  They might appear as clumps and their colour varies from bright white to dark grey.  Occasionally they will bring light rain or snow.

An extreme example is the Morning Glory, a cloud which forms in Australia and which extreme cloud watchers, but more often gliders, travel great distances to see.  This cloud can be as big as Britain….!

Lots of useful links

“You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella…”

Following all that talk of rain, I felt umbrellas would be a good next step.  One of the many ways we try to avoid nature and also, in a positively English and polite way, to poke out peoples eyes.

So here’s a few things you probably didn’t know about umbrellas:

  • The word “umbrella” comes the Latin umbra, meaning shaded or shadow
  • A collapsible umbrella from the 1st century was found in the tomb of Wang Guang
  • The oldest written record of a collapsible umbrella dates back to n all written records, the oldest reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 AD
  • The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was introduced in 1710 and worked in much the same way as they do today.
  • The 19th century was a very productive stage in umbrella innovation.
  • The uptake in umbrella use in the UK may have been a contributing factor towards the lengthening of the average life.
  • In 1978 a modified umbrella was used to inject Georgi Markov with a dose of ricin.
  • In 2005, in South Africa, Brian Hahn was beaten to death with an umbrella.
  • On a slightly cheerier note, National Umbrella Day is 10th February and is apparently celebrated around the world.
  • For a very very long time umbrellas were only used by women as men who used them were considered effeminate…

If these facts have er, whet your appetite, there is a very detailed history of the umbrella on Wikipedia if you want the full story.

Bad luck

One thing a lot of us have heard at some point is that having an umbrella up inside the house is bad luck, but why might this be so?

Well, first we need to consider the symbolism of the umbrella.  Most obviously it is used in weather forecasting as an icon for rain but it is also a symbol of the Pope, representing protection.  The related parasol is a symbol of Himalayan Buddhism representing sky, protection and learning.  So, there is a certain element of sacredness associated with the umbrella.

We also find that in ancient Egypt the umbrella was a symbol of goddess Nut’s protection.  Her body covered the entire sky and important people were shaded by parasols covered in peacock feathers.  It was said that the shadow from these parasols were sacred.  Because of this association, it was considered an insult to Nut to open an umbrella inside.

Sort of related to this is the idea that as umbrellas protect you against the storms of life, opening one in your home would be an insult to the guardian spirits of your house and would cause them to get very annoyed and leave you unprotected.

Similarly, one explanation is based on pixies, goblins and fairies enjoyment of living inside upturned objects.  This would mean if you opened your umbrella they would fall out and to do so in your house would result in chaos.  The key message coming through here is that you do not want to anger the pixies, goblins, fairies, guardian spirits or sky goddesses…

Apparently umbrellas used to often be used to cover the heads of catholic priests during last rites so were associated with death and it was said that opening one inside would invite death into the household.

There is also a practical aspect to discouraging the opening of umbrellas indoors.  In around the 18th century when they were coming into use in Britain, umbrellas were a bit bulky with slightly unpredictable mechanisms as well as steel ribs.  Opening one of these indoors, in a crowded room, could easily result in poking eyes out or knocking over than expensive vase that had been in the family for years.  Not good, and especially bad if you were a visitor to the house!

You should also keep umbrellas off the table or risk more bad luck coming your way…

Useful links

Surviving the winter: Plants and animals

Whilst I struggle with winter, at least I have a warm and cosy flat and somewhere dry and comfy to snuggle up.  Plants and animals don’t have it so easy.  Over time they have adapted a number of different ways to cope with the harsh weather that winter brings.

There are four main strategies for coping with winter:

  1. Stay active, but adapt
  2. Hibernate
  3. Die, leaving offspring behind in a form that lets them survive
  4. Migrate

Before we look at the options, let’s consider the problems that plants and animals face in the UK.  Obviously it’s cold.  There are frosts and this is a really significant factor as most organisms are made up of a lot of water and frost can lead to their tissues freezing which leads to death.  Other problems include reduced food supply, shorter days can mean less time to find food, lack of light, shortage of water in a liquid form, after all, you can’t drink ice.

Plants and animals know when winter is approaching by sensing environmental cues such as lower temperatures and shorter days.  This knowledge means they can start preparing, for example by building up fat reserves, shedding leaves, hoarding food etc.

Stay active, but adapt

Some organisms continue to be active despite the challenging weather and are able to do this because over time they have adapted strategies to help them.  Growing thicker feathers or fur is one such adaptation; the house sparrow has 11.5% more feathers in winter than in summer.  Squirrels which hide away nuts for the winter are another example of adapting to the weather.

Social behaviours change.  Birds which are normally solitary or found in pairs form flocks for the winter.  This increases food efficiency, reduces heat loss and increases protection from predators.

In the plant world, we see evergreen plants toughing it out.  The main issue for them in the winter is lack of water.  Their needle shaped leaves reduce surface area and this reduces water loss.  They also have a waxy layer which further prevents water loss.  This means the tree retains water throughout the winter and thus are better able to survive.  A lot of adaptations however mean trade offs.  In this case, the shape of the needles makes them less efficient in the spring and summer.

Deciduous trees also struggle with reduced water over winter and it’s also harder to photosynthesise when there is less light.  They’ve dealt with this issue by letting go of their leaves.  Before they do so, they move the water, sugars, minerals etc from the leaves to the woody part of the tree.  Then the chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down and reabsorbed into the main tree.  This leaves behind other pigments which aren’t useful to the tree such as orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls which is why leaves become the gorgeous colours we associate with autumn.

Hibernation

Some animals will go into a full state of hibernation whilst others go into a sort of semi-hibernation which is affected by weather conditions.

In hibernation, the metabolic activity reduces significantly which helps them to conserve energy and survive the winter.  This includes incredibly low heart rates, as low as 10% of their normal heart rate.

Before hibernation, these animals must eat a lot of food and store it as fat.  Whilst this strategy allows animals to survive the difficult winter, it is imperative that they find food again soon after emerging.

Hedgehogs are one example of a true hibernator.  Depending on the weather, they may enter hibernation any time between October and December and emerge again in March or April.  During this period, their heartbeat can fall from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute and its body temperature drops from 35˚C to just 10˚C.

Other UK hibernators include bats, dormice, some insects such as ladybirds, amphibians and reptiles.

Die

This might sound a drastic solution to facing winter but it’s one a number of species implement.  For example, annual plants will complete their life cycle in a year.  During the summer they release their seeds and then they start to die, but leaving behind lots of babies in the form of seeds.  Seeds are a much better form to face the winter in than as a leafy, lush plant which will not be able to cope with frost.

Another organism which often uses this strategy is butterflies.  Many butterflies die shortly after mating and laying eggs and their young then face winter as caterpillars and chrysalises which is much safer.  Some butterflies have adapted to hibernate over winter instead.

Migrate

About 40% of the birds that breed in Britain don’t spend winter here, instead heading off for sunnier places.  But it’s not just birds that migrate, caribou, reindeer, monarch butterflies and other insects all do as well (obviously not UK examples!).

Migration allows animals to find warmer places with better food supplies and less risk of freezing to death.  However, it’s not an easy option.  It’s estimated that swallows suffer 67% annual mortality, much of which is during migration.  Migration is an expensive venture in terms of calories and brings with it risks of predators, shooters and ….

Whilst you might not think it, more northerly birds do migrate to the UK for our comparatively warmer winters.  This includes many kinds of ducks and geese as well as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings.

Migrant butterflies include red admirals and painted ladies which arrive in vast numbers so their caterpillars can hatch here and enjoy the thistles and nettles in the summer.

A likely overlooked migrant is the basking shark which heads to our shores over the summer to eat the concentrated numbers of plankton found here.

Useful links